Gut-origin sepsis in the critically ill patient: pathophysiology and treatment

Infection. 2018 Dec;46(6):751-760. doi: 10.1007/s15010-018-1178-5. Epub 2018 Jul 12.


Introduction: Gut permeability is increased in critically ill patients, and associated with the development of the systemic inflammatory response syndrome and multiple organ dysfunction syndrome (MODS). The pathogenetic link(s) and potential therapies are an area of intense research over the last decades.

Methods: We thoroughly reviewed the literature on gut-origin sepsis and MODS in critically ill patients, with emphasis on the implicated pathophysiological mechanisms and therapeutic interventions.

Findings: Intestinal barrier failure leading to systemic bacterial translocation associated with MODS was the predominant pathophysiological theory for several years. However, clinical studies with critically ill patients failed to provide the evidence of systemic spread of gut-derived bacteria and/or their products as a cause of MODS. Newer experimental data highlight the role of the mesenteric lymph as a carrier of gut-derived danger-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs) to the lung and the systemic circulation. These substances are recognized by pattern recognition receptor-bearing cells in diverse tissues and promote proinflammatory pathways and the development MODS. Therefore, the gut becomes a pivotal proinflammatory organ, driving the systemic inflammatory response through DAMPs release in mesenteric lymph, without the need for systemic bacterial translocation.

Conclusions: There is an emerging need for application of sensitive non-invasive and easily measured biomarkers of early intestinal injury (e.g., citrulline, intestinal fatty acid protein, and zonulin) in our everyday clinical practice, guiding the early pharmacological intervention in critically ill patients to restore or prevent intestinal injury and improve their outcomes.

Keywords: Bacterial translocation; Danger-associated molecular patterns; Gut-lymph hypothesis; Gut-origin sepsis; ICU; Intestinal barrier; Intestinal permeability.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers
  • Critical Illness*
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Diseases / complications*
  • Intestinal Diseases / microbiology
  • Multiple Organ Failure / etiology
  • Multiple Organ Failure / microbiology
  • Sepsis / etiology*
  • Sepsis / microbiology
  • Sepsis / physiopathology
  • Sepsis / therapy


  • Biomarkers